When the Oregon Legislature convenes for a "special session" this Thursday, April 20, its members will have a very limited time frame and a very limited list of items to tackle—among them, funding for education and human services, and to a higher-profile extent, reform of the laws regulating the payday loan industry.
Although it may not be at the top of all legislators' priority list (after all, the Department of Human Services [DHS] is facing a $136 million budget gap, and public schools are closing by the baker's dozen), payday loan reform will likely get the most traction—and it was pushed for by an unlikely source: Republican House Speaker Karen Minnis.
Minnis is largely blamed by her critics for killing payday loan legislation during last year's regular session. When cities like Portland and Gresham began establishing their own regulations to protect payday borrowers, Minnis began pushing for reforms that would be uniform statewide.
But groups like Our Oregon, which is gathering signatures for a comprehensive ballot measure that would severely impact payday loan businesses and offer more protections for borrowers, were suspicious of Minnis' motives, fearing that she'd push for a watered-down version of the reform.
But in the weeks since a special session began being discussed, Minnis has said she would support a legislative solution that would approximate the proposed ballot measure.
"We're cautiously optimistic that the [legislature's reform] will follow the provisions of the ballot measure," Our Oregon's Patty Wentz says. "I think it shows a real change of heart in Karen Minnis."
But if the legislature comes back with anything that is less comprehensive than the ballot measure, Wentz says, Our Oregon will still push to take it to voters. The measure, she claims, is polling at 8-2 in favor. In other words, getting comprehensive reform via the ballot box would be a slam-dunk.
"But this is great for payday borrowers," Wentz says, explaining that if the legislature comes up with a solution, it would go into effect six to seven months before the ballot measure could be implemented. At 1,900-plus payday loans per day in the state, six months represents a great deal of money.
Legislators will only have a couple of days to work through payday loan reform, find enough money to keep DHS alive, and pass something called "Jessica's Law," which would impose minimum prison sentences for violent sexual offenders.
The session begins Thursday morning. All power to the capitol building is being shut off Friday evening for maintenance. In theory, that gives lawmakers about 36 hours, assuming they work nonstop without sleep.